Who’s Behind the Influence Campaign To Get US out of Yemen?

Iran is the most direct beneficiary of the one-sided campaign to withdraw US assistance from the Arab Coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.

The choir of voices suddenly concerned about the constitutionality of the use of the War Powers Act and the 2001 AUMF to justify US logistical assistance to the Arab Coalition’s war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen is not a coincidence. It is a coordinated influence campaign aimed at changing US policy – at the expense of US national security interests. The US interests are vested  in curbing Iranian expansionism in the Middle East and preventing the takeover of the Bab Al-Mandeb Strait. Bab Al-Mandeb a major waterway, strategically important for international trade vessels en route to and from Djibouti, and in danger of a blockade by the Houthis, the Islamic Republic, and Russia.

The litany of complaints about the poorly understood function of US presence in Yemen has been going on for over a year, periodically piping up around crucial election times, such as last November. US function in Yemen is two-fold: to counter jihadist organizations, such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and to provide logistical and intelligence assistance to the Arab Coalition.

The war has not been smooth. The Arab Coalition is struggling with clearing out the rebels. Perhaps the Saudi government should take blame for keeping the corrupt, and now assassinated, former President Saleh on the dole for decades, while overlooking weapons smuggling and radicalization inside the country. Carping over poor decisions by past leadership, however, does nothing to resolve the current issues, which include the fact that the Arab Coalition is facing an existential threat from both Iran, and Houthis. The Houthis, armed by the Islamic Regime, have fired numerous missiles in the direction of Riyadh. Though many failed or were intercepted, the Saudi track record of relieving these missiles has been poor.  The Saudi army, while well-armed, is inexperienced in large scale operations, and in essence cutting its teeth in ground warfare along with the elite UAE forces, the Yemeni security forces, and others. And the air strikes, which constitute the central portion of the Saudi strategy thus far, have been insufficient given Yemen’s terrain and lack of a strong ground campaign. Some have unfairly decried the air bombardment campaign as “sloppy”; however, without ground assistance, the precision in attacking an enemy that is fighting asymmetrical warfare is bound to be limited. Without US assistance in logistical and intelligence matter, the Arab Coalition’s task would be even more difficult, if not to say, impossible.

The first recent sign of discontent with US counterterrorism operations and logistical assistance to the anti-Terrorism Quartet operating in Yemen (KSA, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) has been a newly proposed Senate resolution # 54, backed by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I – VT), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Chris Murphy (D-CT).  The resolution seems to have out of nowhere, and will likely fail, just as its predecessor failed in the House, earlier. However, its companion piece is coming up in the House, and its fate is less clear. The Senate vote coincides with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s visit to the United States, where he is meeting with President Trump, then will visit a number of cities to lobby for investment opportunities. The Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted the resolution the day before, praising Saudi Arabia.

The US is not likely to break away from the UK, which in the course of the recent visit by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,  pledged to continue lending its logistical support to Saudi Arabia and other members of the coalition in Yemen. One wonders why, if the technical requirements of the AUMF are at issue, the resolution calls for complete withdrawal rather than for an immediate hearing to reauthorize the US involvement on the basis of new and emerging security threats, which were not yet at issue in 2001. Most importantly, Secretary of Defense Mattis has eloquently stated the case for providing much more, rather than limiting, assistance to the Arab Coalition in order to roll back Iranian expansionism. The Pentagon’s assessment of threats to US security, including the security of its vessels in the region,  is no less important than the generic, poorly substantiated, and one-sided concern about the way US assistance to the Saudis allegedly contributes to the deterioration of the human rights situation and famine inside the country . None of the concerned NGOS, or other critics, of course ever make note of the 1.5 billion dollar humanitarian aid package the Saudis have been distributing with the help of the Yemeni security forces. Nor is there a question of what would happen to the civilians if the country were to be abandoned to the Houthis.

The answer, of course, is that the legal requirements are merely a justification to push a political outcome. Although the administration is likely to continue its due course against Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorists groups, while providing essential logistical assistance to its allies, the goal of this campaign is less to achieve immediate results than to raise public awareness of US presence in Yemen. The gathering of all the think tanks and the bombardment of the media with repetitive op-eds, all citing the same talking points, all alleging that the Saudi strikes are “disproportionate and indiscriminant”, without ever citing real evidence to that effect,  is a marathon push to sway public opinion, as well as members of Congress to shift away from supporting US presence in that area. The reason why the administration is not likely to end its assistance to the Saudis immediately should be obvious. In December, Ambassodor Nikki Haley led a demonstration of  missile debris recovered from an attack on Saudi soil at the United Nations. The missile’s footprint was identical to similar missiles issued by Iran itself, clearly demonstrating the link between Iran’s aggression in the region and the armament of the Houthis. President Trump continued public demonstrations of the missile parts following that episode. More recently, a panel of experts found UN in violation of the embargo on providing efforts. However, after Russia imposed its veto, derailing US sanctions. Nikki Haley, then, threatened to take this issue to the US and to work with Congress to impose sanctions against Iran.

The real reason for the suddenly reemerging interest in US assistance to the Arab Coalition is avoiding further sanctions and distracting from Iran’s role in the war. Over 40 NGOs expressed support for the Senate Resolution # 54. The cited humanitarian disaster in Yemen as the reason to withdraw, placing the blame on the Arab Coalition. However, the allegations against Saudi Arabia (and US support for it) left out the role Iran proxies have played in firing illegal ballistic missiles on the civilian population. They failed to note the vast human rights abuses against religious minorities in Yemen, by the Houthis, whose radical ideology calls for death to America, to Israel, and to the members of the Arab coalition, increasingly extreme thanks to Iranian education. They likewise failed to note that Houthis use civilian targets, such as school and hospitals, as human shields to maximize the number of casualties during airstrikes. The human rights report, which came out in 2016, is not mentioned anywhere, and it it is the proximate cause of the unusually high number of civilian casualties during air strikes. Furthermore, earlier this week, the Arab Coalition unveiled additional evidence of Iran’s provision of its ballistic missiles to the Houthis.  At the same time, there is a body of evidence showing that the Houthis continue to kidnap and recruit child soldiers, in violation of international law and all civil norms.

Rather, the voices calling to an end to US presence in Yemen, issues a number of very similar sounding statements in major publications,  such as National Interest, in the Hill, for CNN,and more, along with the reports about the Congressional battle fueled by the anti-war advocates. The argument is nearly identical. By abandoning US allies to their own devices, the US will somehow end the “senseless suffering” of innocent civilians. However, in actuality, US withdrawal would prolong the war, as terrorist groups add fuel to the fire, and Iran continues to expand its reach, contradicting the goals of the US National Security Strategy. Recently, Houthis destroyed UAE’s Patriot missile defense system with a swarm of drones. Access to such weapons demonstrates the growing sophistication of the rebels, and their backers, and their readiness and willingness to up the ante in Yemen, rather than to come to the negotiating table and to give up their tools of war. The fate of minorities and their adversaries is not enviable in the event Houthis prevail.

Iran-backed push to get US out of Yemen is entirely self serving and transparent. Earlier this week, Ayatollah Khamenei chastised Europe for its involvement in Syria and Middle East. However, not one word of Assad’s strikes against civiliast in Eastern Ghouta made it into his statement. The similar line of reasoning runs through the coordinated influence campaign to get US out of Yemen, based in the successful proliferation of Iranian proxies and agents of influence in US think tanks, the media, and human rights world . This latest outcry is not about minimizing the suffering of the civilians, defending the Constitution, or saving the taxpayers’ money, but rather about empowering Iran, weakening the Arab Coalition, and undermining US leadership position in protecting its own interests and those of its allies in the region. In light of the obvious duplicity of the defenders spreading malicious disinformation about the role of the US military in Yemen, the Senate (and House, and the Administration) should take into consideration the goal of rolling back Iranian expansionism, stopping the perpetration of atrocities fueled by the Houthis, and cutting off the flow of propaganda which seeks to create divisions between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Hopefully, not only this resolution will fail, but all other such efforts will follow suit.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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